When I started my career, all the work I was doing felt like a giant blob labeled “work.”
The tasks I was responsible for stretched out before me toward an endless horizon. No matter how hard I worked or how many hours I logged, that horizon never seemed to get any closer.
But eventually I began to notice a pattern: there were “chunks” of work that seemed to start and stop, and “flows” of work that seemed to run continuously.
Once I noticed this simple pattern, I began to see it everywhere.
In physics, we know light is both a discrete particle and a flowing wave. In supply chain logistics, we have both discrete stocks and flows of material. In mathematics, we have discrete numbers and continuous numbers.
I began to organize my work according to these two categories: the chunks became “projects” and the flows became “areas of responsibility.”
I had no way of knowing that this miniscule change would dramatically reshape my relationship to my productivity, my creativity, and my commitments.
Let me introduce you to the most effective way I’ve found to organize my work and life: by project and area of responsibility.
What are projects and areas?
A project is any endeavor that has 1) a desired outcome that will enable you to mark it “complete,” and 2) a deadline or timeframe by which you’d like it done.
An area of responsibility has 1) a standard to be maintained that 2) is continuous over time.
In short, projects end, while areas continue indefinitely.
Every project has a corresponding area that it falls within. For example:
- Running a marathon is a project, whereas Health is an area
- Publishing a book is a project, whereas Writing is an area
- Saving 3 months’ worth of expenses is a project, whereas Finances is an area
- A vacation to Thailand is a project, whereas Travel is an area
- Planning an anniversary dinner is a project, whereas Spouse is an area
In all these examples, the projects have completion dates. They are either complete or incomplete at any given time.
Projects finish when the desired outcome is achieved (or fails to be achieved) – the marathon has been run, the book is published, the savings are tucked away, the vacation is over, or the anniversary dinner is successful. And you’d like each of these things to happen by a certain time, whether that is an externally imposed deadline or just a personal preference.
But just because a project is over, that doesn’t mean you never have to pay attention to that area of your life again.
Every area of responsibility has a standard to be maintained. And there is no end date or final outcome. Your performance in this area may wax and wane over time, but the standard continues indefinitely and requires a certain level of attention at all times.
In the examples above, the areas have no particular outcome to be achieved. There is no finish line you can reach that allows you to “complete” managing your health, or “achieve” writing once and for all, or “check off” finances as an ongoing concern, or never have to worry about travel or your spouse again.
Areas are crucial to your wellbeing, security, fulfillment, and peace of mind. Whereas projects have outcomes, areas have standards of performance that you want to maintain.
For example, if you’re responsible for an area like leading product development, there is a standard of performance (or a “quality bar”) for the product you are responsible for. That may include maintaining its speed and performance, fixing bugs, and approving new updates to be released. Quality and performance may wax and wane over time, but if it ever dips too far below a certain level for too long, there will be consequences. Not only do you seek to maintain that standard, you may even want to “raise the bar” and improve it over time.
For managing your finances, your standard may be that you pay all your bills on time and provide for your family’s needs. For being a homeowner, it may be that you do your household chores and maintain the safety and security of your home. For parenting, it may be that you spend quality time with your kids every evening and make sure they are always loved and protected.
Once you view your life through the lens of discrete projects and continuous areas, it becomes clear that both of these structures are essential. Projects bring you excitement, achievement, and recognition, whereas areas bring you balance, peace, and meaning.
But they can only do that when you consciously feed both.
Projects and areas are interdependent
Projects and areas depend on each other at a deep level.
Let’s say you start a project to apply for a new job. It has a desired outcome – to land a job – and a preferred time frame – by the end of the year. In order for this new project to succeed, you will need to draw on the order and energy you’ve cultivated as part of your areas.
For example, you’ll need to conduct interviews on Zoom, which means your home environment better be reasonably tidy. You might need to dip into your savings between jobs, so your finances will need to support that. Looking for a job can be stressful, so the standard you’ve maintained for your health and supportive relationships will be crucial.
A project is much like a rocket taking off from a launchpad. It is an explosion of energy toward an objective, like a rocket pushing against gravity before finally hitting escape velocity and reaching orbit. Your areas are like the stable infrastructure that has been built up over time and enables that rocket to take off: the launch pad, the scaffolding, the cooling systems, and the command center.
In this way, projects and areas feed and reinforce each other. By keeping your areas of responsibility healthy and thriving, you are building up reserves of strength. Those reserves can then be spent in an explosive burst of energy toward a goal that matters to you.
Every project requires a “heavy lift” to some degree, but those heavy lifts are far more powerful and effective (and brief) when you’ve already been collecting material in a “slow burn.” It is only when heavy lifts become a chronic, default way of approaching everything that they lead to burnout and exhaustion.
I’ve noticed that most people tend to favor either projects or areas in the way they manage their energy. Understanding this natural tendency is the first step toward building on our strengths while shoring up our weaknesses.
Project people vs. Area people
“Project people” are good at sprints. Give them a clear goal and a path to get there, and they will ferociously chase after it with everything they have. They are like elite sprinters, able to exert huge amounts of energy over short distances.
But the weakness of sprinters is that once they’ve reached their goal, they will often have trouble keeping it going. They will often change direction and run after the next goal, leaving their past achievements to wither. Sprinters are prone to starting many things and getting obsessed for a short time, before moving abruptly to something else.
“Area people” excel at marathons. Send them on a long journey with some supplies and they will doggedly keep at it for as long as it takes. They are like marathon runners, able to maintain a steady flow of energy and keep pushing forward across long distances.
The weakness of marathoners is that they often have trouble generating a lot of power on short notice. When an opportunity opens up that requires quick, decisive action, they’ll have difficulty changing direction and drawing down their reserves to chase it down. Marathoners will tend to stubbornly maintain their current direction and follow through on existing plans even when the situation has changed and requires a different approach.
Knowing which tendency you favor is an important starting point. If you can learn to master your natural energy pattern and know how to activate it consciously, you’ll have a capability akin to a superpower.
But eventually, you’ll want to round out your strengths by addressing your weaknesses. You can choose to consciously cultivate the other end of the spectrum, learning to identify whether a given situation requires a project or an area. Once you know whether you’re working with a project or area, you can adopt the right mindset and take the most helpful approach for the challenge at hand.
Projects require you to be laser-focused, to ferociously drive toward an outcome, to overcome or circumvent obstacles, and to ignore distractions along the way. Areas, on the other hand, require mindfulness, balance, and reflection. This is the realm of habits, rituals, and intentional communities. Whereas projects tend to be more black and white, areas require more introspection and self-awareness because it takes more nuance to decide if you are meeting your standard in a given area.
Through my coaching and teaching, I’ve come to believe that even the smallest confusion between these two fundamental categories is a deeply rooted cause of many people’s recurring challenges with creating the life they want.
If you have a project that you are treating like an area (for example, trying to write a book in 30 minutes a day) it will feel like it’s taking forever with no discernible progress. If you have an area that you are treating like a project (like trying to lose 10 pounds as a one-time goal), you’re likely to revert right back after it’s been achieved because you didn’t put in place any mechanism for maintaining that new standard.
If you are a “Project person” and want to improve your ability to sustain your areas, here are some techniques you can try:
- Adopt a morning or evening routine
- Set limits to your working hours
- Take regular breaks and walks in nature
- Journal and write out your internal anxieties and thoughts
- Create a meditation habit (or other mindful habit)
- Set your intentions each day, week, month, or year
- Evaluate your schedule for a balance of intense work and healthy, mindful activities
If you are an “Area person” who wants to improve your ability to execute on projects, here are some techniques you can try:
- Set a deadline with consequences
- Use “timeboxing” to concentrate your energy output
- Make a promise to someone that you’ll deliver by a certain time
- Schedule a meeting or presentation during which you’ll unveil your work
- Reduce the scope of the project and drop features as the deadline approaches
- Break the project down into smaller pieces and set milestones for each one to be finished by
- Design your working environment to promote focus by removing distractions and notifications
A holistically flourishing human life requires a healthy balance of exciting short-term projects and steady long-term areas. When they work together fluidly they allow our true potential to shine.
But once in a while, you may want to tilt that balance in favor of projects. Here’s why…
The explosive power of projects
Projects and areas make up the first two categories of my PARA organizing method.
That is no accident – a Second Brain can be thought of as a cognitive support system for both executing projects and maintaining areas, which is why those two categories are front and center in how I recommend you organize your digital life.
When you launch a new project, you have to set aside many of your usual habits, routines, and boundaries for a time. In order to recruit the necessary energy for liftoff, you have to let go of some of the structures that you normally rely on to stay balanced.
For example, when you’re about to close a big sales contract with an important client, and every decision is pivotal, that isn’t the time to rigidly stick to your gym routine. When it’s the middle of the night and you’re on the precipice of a major breakthrough in a piece you’re writing, that isn’t the time to dogmatically conform to your usual bedtime. When a window of opportunity opens in front of you, all your clever strategies, productivity systems, meditation rituals, self-reflection practices, and mindful habits may well be liabilities.
When you temporarily let go of control in this way, a huge amount of extra energy becomes available to you. In essence, you give up the ability to steer where you’re going in exchange for more acceleration and momentum. If you insist on always perfectly maintaining all of your areas at all times, you’ll never gain enough speed to take off from the runway. It’s better to accumulate deficits in those areas temporarily and pay them off later once liftoff has been achieved.
We all know the importance of work-life balance and healthy boundaries, but once in a while we have to let all that go and focus every ounce of energy we have on a singular outcome. This is, by definition, unsustainable. But that is why it’s so important to move fast and break through barriers as quickly as possible: the faster you reach your objective, the sooner you can stop to rest and recover.
You may be wondering why you’d want to do any of this. Why let go of structure and routine? Why are productive explosions desirable or necessary? For one simple reason: they allow you to get an extraordinary amount done in a short period of time.
I can trace most of the major breakthroughs in my career to just a handful of brief productivity explosions: the 2-week period I outlined the first version of my Building a Second Brain course, which became the flagship product for my business; the week I holed up in a hotel in Portugal and wrote nearly the entirety of my series on Just-in-Time Project Management, shaping my thinking for years to come; and a couple 4-day writing retreats during which I made most of the progress on my recently published book.
To be clear, I was completely exhausted by the end of each of these sprints. But once they came to an end, I had made so much progress that I had full permission to step back from my work and take the time I needed to recover.
Consistent habits and “1% gains” work for some kinds of progress, but not others. If you’re trying to complete a major creative work, such as a book, website, proposal, or event, for example, these kinds of projects can’t be moved forward by tinkering with them for 30 minutes per day. They are informationally complex, which means you have to spend a lot of time loading up context into your brain before you take even one step. For such endeavors, only sprints will work.
Modern knowledge work is so complex and demanding, it is wise to think of ourselves as “cognitive athletes.” Unlike professional athletes, however, we have to train our mental fitness to run both sprints and marathons at different times.
Some seasons of our lives are all about the journey, but others are more like sprints.
Source: The Universe Will Now Explode for Your Pleasure by Venkatesh Rao
Thank you to Julia Saxena, Beth, Ashpreet Singh, Mike Schmitz, Kevin Mooney, Jeff Brown, and Gavin Rodriguez for their feedback and suggestions on this piece.